Family Preservation

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family preservation

A phrase used to describe efforts made by state and county social workers to enable a family to stay together. In most cases, the family has a severe problem and that problem has led to child maltreatment, in the form of ABANDONMENT, ABUSE or NEGLECT, and the child was removed from the home and placed in a foster home or group home.

The ADOPTION ASSISTANCE AND CHILD WELFARE ACT OF 1980 included strong provisions for holding families together through various means: counseling, parenting classes, contracts between the parent and the social services department and other attempts to "preserve" the family.

In some cases, these efforts were successful and the child and family were reunited. In others, the process was one of the child being returned to the family, abuse or neglect recurring and the child being returned to the foster home. Some children flip-flopped between their biological family and a host of foster families for years and sometimes for their entire childhoods until they "aged-out" at age 18 and were no longer eligible for foster care assistance.

In more dire cases, the child was returned to a very abusive family and the family severely abused the child or even murdered her or him. Such incidents enraged the public for a short period, and then the incident was forgotten. Then a similar incident would happen to another child.

For years, adoption advocates said it was wrong to warehouse children in foster care, and they also made a statement quite heretical to most social workers: "Some families cannot be saved." Many social workers continued to believe that with enough time, money and hard work, virtually every family could be "fixed."

Other social workers said that there were three basic elements that had to be present in order to salvage an extremely dysfunctional family: means, ability and motivation. They said that the social service system could provide "means," or the resources necessary to help a family. For example, social workers might be able to help the family find an affordable apartment that was much better than where they were living. They might be able to improve the client's living situation in many other ways with "means," by using money and professional skills.

But what the social workers could not provide were the other two essential elements: ability and motivation. The family had to have the capacity to change, whether it was the intellectual or cognitive capacity (or some other capacity). Then, even if they had help from excellent social workers and the ability to implement changes, they needed the final piece of the puzzle-motivation. No matter how bright the family was and how enormous their capabilities, the fact remained that if they didn't want to change and didn't acknowledge the need to change, the dysfunction would continue. This would apply whether the dysfunction was caused by alcohol or drugs or emotional disorders or some other problem.

After years of lobbying, the ADOPTION AND SAFE FAMILIES ACT (ASFA) of 1997 was passed. This did not wipe out attempts to preserve families, but rather it was a law that took into account the child's needs. It was an attempt to prevent children from spending their lives in foster care. Instead, they either were to return to their families when possible or, in some cases, the parental rights of their parents would be ended so that the children could be adopted, often by their foster parents who had cared for them for years.

The idea of family preservation was a very positive and optimistic one. The problem was that public social service departments interpreted the concept in an extremely rigid way, often assuming that children had to be sent back to abusive homes and families, even when they were likely to be reabused. A major part of the problem was also the judiciary. State social workers and their attorneys often presented what they thought was a "perfect" case for leaving a child in foster care, if not terminating parental rights altogether. And then a judge would inexplicably send the child back to abusive parents.

Because the Adoption Assistance and Child Welfare Act was so misinterpreted in its application, Congress passed ASFA to rectify this error. Although unlikely, some people feared that this would mean a radical swing to the other extreme and that no attempts would be made to preserve families. See also FOSTER CARE.

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